Richmond Story: The Knights of Labor

In 1882 and 1883, a nationwide economic slump led to layoffs across the country. Many of these layoffs became permanent, even as the economy recovered due to industries replacing more and more workers with machinery. Against this mass industrialization, traditional small craft unions found few victories. In Richmond, like in most American cities, small craft unions were nothing new. Organized by trade, however, they were limited in size and thus limited in power. There were only so many quarry workers or so many foundry workers in a single city. Many felt powerless against the mass scale of industrialization.

V.92.68.03, Proposition for Membership in the Order of the Knights of Labor, c. 1885, The Valentine

A new labor model was needed to address the changing economic landscape. That model could be found in the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1869, it slowly evolved and expanded its mission and leadership so that by 1879, it was poised to harness the rising frustrations of the working class. This union revolutionized the labor movement by inducting members regardless of trade. Anyone could join: iron workers, typographers, cigar makers, granite cutters, mill workers, barbers, builders, textile workers. With sheer numbers, the Knights could match the power of what they called “the great capitalists.”

In April of 1884, the Knights of Labor spread to Richmond. Eleven white workers established “The Eureka Assembly.” At first, they struggled to gain more members. Corporate interests were strong and leaders exploited racial tensions within the working class to maintain power. But by the fall of 1884, Black workers had formed a few of their own assemblies. They could not be official Knights, however, without a charter, which they needed from the local white organizer. By that time, eight white assemblies had been established in the city. Fierce debate between them ensued. Some members were in favor of integrating the union, while some opposed the idea. The organizer, Charles Miller, wrote to the national office outlining the dilemma. Terence Powderly, the General Master Workman of the Knights, and possibly the most famous labor activist in the country at the time, did not reply to the letter. Instead, he came to Richmond.

He arrived in late January of 1885 and stayed for two days. In those two days, he held two meetings. In the first, open only to white members, he discussed the inclusive structure needed to not just address larger local issues, but to apply political pressure and to secure victories for workers. Powderly told the group:

“We organize the colored workers into separate assemblies, working under the same laws and enjoying the same privileges as their white brethren… The politicians have kept the white and black men of the South apart, while crushing both. Our aim shall be to educate both and elevate them by bringing them together.”

V.93.108.02, Tenth Annual Convention of the Knights of Labor, Held at the First Regiment Armory, Richmond. General Master Worksman Powderly Addressing the Convention, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. October 16, 1886, The Valentine

The next evening, he presided over a much larger meeting at the Old First Market Hall, at 17th and Main Streets. This meeting was open to everyone: Black and white, men and women, members and non-members. It was packed. There, he announced this separate but equal structure, quite radical for the time in Richmond. Never before here had Black and white workers belonged to the same union. The enthusiasm of the crowd was so great, Powderly later recalled that “I organized an assembly of colored men at the conclusion of the meeting.” After Powderly’s visit, membership to the Knights of Labor exploded in Richmond. Even the women were inspired to organize for the first time in this city’s history, forming an assembly of white women cigarette makers.

By retaining maximum flexibility for both membership and regional prejudices, the Knights of Labor drew in the numbers needed to fight rising corporate power. Of course, because of this flexibility, many things did not change for Black workers in their segregated assemblies and more serious divisions persisted. But Black and white workers did, for the first time in Richmond, exert political pressure as one. As membership boomed, the Knights held boycotts against offending businesses. One of their first actions as an “integrated” union was to take up the cause of Richmond’s coopers—a trade unique at the time for not being dominated by one race. Forced to compete with free convict labor, Black and white coopers struggled to make a living. In the summer of 1885, the Knights declared a boycott on the Haxall-Crenshaw flour mill in defense of the coopers, which bought convict-made barrels. Right away, they took on one of the biggest and oldest businesses in Richmond. By the end of the year, the Knights won. With that, thousands of white Richmonders were compelled to, and did, join a boycott that benefited poor Black workers—a feat nearly unimaginable in 1880s Richmond.

The Valentine Opens Richmond History Makers Nominations During a Year of Historic Transformation

September 8, 2020

Contact: Eric Steigleder
Director of Communications

The Valentine Opens Richmond History Makers Nominations During a Year of Historic Transformation

The sixteenth annual program will punctuate months of tremendous change across the Richmond Region

RICHMOND — In the midst of an historic moment in our community, the Valentine will open nominations for the 2021 Richmond History Makers & Community Update today. The program honors individuals and organizations making substantive and lasting contributions to the Greater Richmond region.

“We have seen so many Richmonders directly confront the challenges that have come to exemplify the past several months,” said Valentine Director Bill Martin. “During such an unprecedented time, there are even more individuals and organizations making history, and we look forward to receiving nominations that support their bold work.”

The Valentine will again partner with the Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond to highlight the work of six honorees and provide an update on those making a positive impact across the region. The six honorees will be recognized at a community celebration March 9, 2021. Long-time Richmond History Makers sponsor Dominion Energy is returning as the title sponsor.

“We are excited to once again partner with the Valentine for this important program,”  said Scott Blackwell, Chief Community Engagement Officer with the Community Foundation. “At a time when we see so many doing so much, we look forward to shining a spotlight on those whose actions today will impact the community for years to come.”

“Leadership Metro Richmond is a longtime partner in this important endeavor, and we look forward to partnering for the sixteenth year,” said LMR President & CEO Myra Goodman Smith. “‘Making history’ has taken on a whole new meaning during this transformative moment in our community, and we look forward to engaging with those individuals and organizations helping to shape our future in new and exciting ways.”

Nominations for the 2021 Richmond History Makers & Community Update will be accepted September 8 through October 28. You can learn more about the program, view past honorees and nominate your own Richmond history maker at

Additional information, including the status of the celebration on March 9, will be determined after the new year. The Valentine is committed to ensuring a safe and engaging event for our honorees, guests and the public.


About the Valentine
The Valentine has been collecting, preserving and interpreting Richmond’s 400-year history for over a century. Located in the heart of historic downtown, the Valentine is a place for residents and tourists to discover the diverse stories that tell the broader history of this important region.

About the Community Foundation
The Community Foundation is a leading partner and advocate for philanthropy and service in the Richmond region. Founded in 1968, the Community Foundation has built a strong legacy of helping people and institutions give back with passion and purpose.

About Leadership Metro Richmond
Leadership Metro Richmond (LMR) is the region’s community leadership development and engagement organization. Over 2,000 diverse leaders have participated in LMR’s 10-month leadership development program, Leadership Quest. LMR provides leaders with an environment for high-performing conversations, broadens their knowledge and perspectives about the region, and inspires them to serve first then lead.

Richmond Story: The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia

X.2019.16.122, Who Represents Her?, Flyer, circa 1917, The Valentine

On November 27, 1909, a group of prominent white women met in a Richmond home to establish a statewide suffrage organization. Named the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, they elected Lila Meade Valentine as their president. Their mission was to “educate” Virginians and Virginia’s legislators on the merits of women’s suffrage. Like all good educators, they were strategic, creative and tireless in their methods. For easy access to the halls of power and the public, they established headquarters at 802 East Broad Street—just blocks from both the Capitol and the busiest commercial district in the city. From there, audiences were easy to capture.

Out in the streets, they distributed flyers both serious and humorous. To reach people in their homes, artistic members such as Nora Houston designed postcards. The writers—Ellen Glasgow and Mary Johnston—wrote editorials. Adele Clark, another artist, even used trickery to spread the message. With a paintbrush in hand, she’d set up her easel on Broad Street. After an unwitting crowd formed to watch her paint, she turn from her canvas and begin to canvass for the cause. The Equal Suffrage League became hard to ignore as they traveled to schools, took over street corners, haunted legislative sessions, attended union meetings, marched in parades and even set up booths at the state fair. By 1914, the League had grown to 45 local chapters. By 1916, they reported 115 local chapters statewide.

As a state-focused organization, the League aimed to gain suffrage through changes in the state constitution. But despite their multi-faceted efforts, the Virginia legislature rejected suffrage resolutions three times between 1912 and 1916. Some League members became frustrated and shifted their efforts to national organizations that lobbied the U.S. Congress for a Constitutional amendment. Others continued to press on at the state level, where they confronted the anti-suffragists’ escalating war of words. In Virginia, and across the South in general, many feared the unintended consequences of enfranchising Black women. With Black men and Black women at the polls, they argued, whites might lose power. In response, the League sought to allay those fears by embracing racist laws, positions and rhetoric. They printed more “educational” flyers, such as the one below, which assured nervous whites that white supremacy would, in fact, be strengthened by female suffrage.

V.89.25, Equal Suffrage and the Negro Vote, Flyer, circa 1910, The Valentine

Of course, the suffragists eventually won at the national level. When the Constitutional amendment passed Congress in 1919, the 32,000-member League poured their energies into the campaign for ratification. The amendment failed in both houses of the state legislature, however, by a large majority. It would not pass for more than 30 years. Only in 1952 did the General Assembly formally, perhaps begrudgingly, ratify the 19th Amendment. But none of this mattered much once enough states signed on by August of 1920. Within two months, and in time for the 1920 Presidential election, more than 10,000 white women and nearly 2,500 Black women had registered to vote in Virginia.

Learn more about the complicated, nuanced and problematic struggle for suffrage in Richmond when you visit our exhibition #BallotBattle: Richmond’s Social Struggle for Suffrage, which reimagines early suffrage debates through the lens of modern social media platforms.

Richmond Story: Fan Free Clinic

In the early 1980s, news outlets began to report about a mysterious new “gay cancer” in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Little was known about the disease, other than its main demographic. At first, the threat seemed far away to many Americans, with risk limited to the urban gay community. But soon, the epidemic spread to smaller cities and the demographic picture blurred. By 1990, the estimated number of people diagnosed worldwide with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was between eight and 10 million. With little information and with no known treatments, fear largely motivated responses in Richmond and around the word. People with AIDS were shunned. Hospitals posted huge warning signs outside patients’ rooms. Medical personnel wore hazmat suits and left food trays in the halls. Funeral homes refused to bury those who died of the disease. Here in Richmond, amidst this turmoil, a clinic initially founded to serve “hippies” stepped in to become the area’s leader in AIDS diagnosis, treatment, outreach and prevention.

V.89.192.320 Third annual AIDS candlelight vigil, sponsored by the Fan Free Clinic May 30, 1988 Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine Photo: Bruce Parker

The first free clinic in Virginia, two doctors, a nurse and a minister founded Fan Free Clinic in 1970. A large population of young, poor students and runaways had moved into the Fan District during the 1960s. Free love, communal living, recreational drug use and protests became the dominant lifestyle of the neighborhood. Skeptical of the judgment of the medical establishment, these young people tended to avoid doctors. When the Fan Free Clinic opened, it provided a revolutionary model for healthcare for a revolutionary generation. Without judgment and only using first names, the staff treated STDs, provided birth control, handled overdoses and treated a wide variety of injuries. They also provided counseling to young people entering into adulthood during this uncertain time.

A decade into operation, Fan Free Clinic had gained the trust of a skeptical community that had often avoided medical treatment. Soon, the staff began to notice that their young, mostly white counterculture patients had a lot in common with another medically elusive demographic: the broader population of urban poor, many of whom were Black. However, these individuals didn’t avoid medical care as an act of rebellion. Instead, many Black Richmonders couldn’t get time off work, struggled to find sustainable housing, couldn’t find childcare or simply couldn’t afford the care they needed. The Fan Free Clinic expanded to meet their needs as well, offering evening doctor appointments and advertising their services in homeless shelters.

When the AIDS epidemic hit Richmond in the 1980s, the Fan Free Clinic was poised to address the new healthcare threat. As hospitals balked at this mysterious new disease, as the media spread fear and misinformation and as scandalized citizens either moralized or refused to talk at all about the raging epidemic, Fan Free Clinic rose to the challenge. They formed Richmond’s frontline for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. In 1983, they set up an AIDS hotline and established Richmond AIDS Information Network (RAIN) with a network of volunteers. Through its AIDS hotline, volunteers answered questions about virus transmission and advocated for safer sex and the use of clean drug needles. Misinformation about how the disease spread terrified the American public, making education vitally important. Perhaps just as important, they fought the AIDS epidemic with compassion. RAIN provided services and companionship to those affected by the disease. They offered comfort to the dying, raised money for medical treatments and staged funerals. When other cemeteries around Richmond refused to bury AIDS victims, the Fan Free Clinic established their own burial ground.

The Fan Free Clinic, renamed Health Brigade, in still in operation today. Its mission remains unchanged: to provide medical treatment, health education and social services to Richmonders with limited access to care. Though its mission remains the same, the clinic’s reach has expanded in order to serve Richmond’s transgender community. As before, they are on the frontlines, combatting the healthcare challenges of a pandemic which has had a disparate impact on communities of color. Currently, Health Brigade is providing free testing and accurate COVID-19 information to a clientele that desperately need this vital lifeline of care.

To learn more about the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Virginia and the ongoin impact in 2020, we invite you to experience Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic, our exhibition that uses first-person oral histories and powerful black-and-white portraits to offer a nuanced look at the ongoing epidemic through the stories of survivors, caregivers, activists and health care workers on the front lines.

Ain’t Misbehavin’: 1920s Richmond Explores Change, Conflict Through Fashion

July 6, 2020

Contact: Eric Steigleder
Director of Communications

Ain’t Misbehavin’: 1920s Richmond Explores Change, Conflict Through Fashion

A new exhibition opening at the Valentine examines an evolving Richmond during the roaring 20s 

Bridesmaid dress worn by Elizabeth Bland Brockenbrough, 1927, V.64.03.01, Gift of Elizabeth B. Brockenbrough

RICHMOND — The Valentine’s newest costume and textiles exhibition, Ain’t Misbehavin’: 1920s Richmond, debuts on July 21, marking the 100th anniversary of a decade of full innovation, social change and conflict. The exhibition will be the first to open at the Valentine since reopening on June 30. 

Ain’t Misbehavin’: 1920s Richmond uses the lens of fashion to address a wide variety of topics, from the explosion of youth culture and teen influence to the dramatic increase of women entering the workforce. At the same time, Richmond in the 1920s represented the height of the Jim Crow era, with new laws and old traditions targeting the city’s Black population.

“This exhibition is perfect for this moment in our community,” said Valentine Director Bill Martin. “Just as in the 1920s, Richmond today is going through a time of dramatic reassessment and renewal, and many of the same issues that made headlines 100 years ago are again part of the conversation.” 

Named for the popular 1929 song of the same name performed by Richmonder Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Ain’t Misbehavin’ explores the social upheaval and cultural innovation of 1920s Richmond, using the Valentine’s impressive costume and textiles collection and its beautiful array of 1920s fashions. 

“I have been struck by the ways that Richmond stories embedded in the Valentine’s collection of 1920s garments echo and anticipate what is happening in the city today,” said Kristen Stewart, the Natalie L. Klaus Curator of Costume and Textiles. “We are thrilled to welcome visitors back to the Valentine with an exhibition that both delights the eye and illuminates a moment in Richmond’s complex history that connects directly with current conversations.”

Ain’t Misbehavin’: 1920s Richmond opens at the Valentine on July 21. To see this and all other exhibitions, reserve your tickets online at Admission is free throughout the summer.


About the Valentine
The Valentine has been collecting, preserving and interpreting Richmond’s 400-year history for over a century. Located in the heart of historic downtown, the Valentine is a place for residents and tourists to discover the diverse stories that tell the broader history of this important region.

Richmond Cultural Institutions Share Joint Reopening Statement as COVID-19 Restrictions are Lifted

June 10, 2020

Eric Steigleder
Communications Director

Richmond Cultural Institutions Share Joint Reopening Statement as COVID-19 Restrictions are Lifted

RICHMOND, VA – Richmond area cultural institutions, including museums, attractions, and other sites, have released a joint statement as Virginia continues to lift additional COVID-19 restrictions.

The statement, endorsed by 21 cultural institutions in the area, reflects a set of shared values and provides staff, volunteers, and members of the public with a unified response during this challenging moment. Included is a list of shared protocols and safety measures to give visitors a clearer idea of what to expect in the coming weeks and months.

The joint statement reads:

“As our Commonwealth enters into Phase 2 and our city prepares to, we want to assure all attendees that we are committed to providing everyone with safe, secure, and supportive access to our facilities. In the midst of a pandemic and a region-wide reassessment of our fraught racial history, we believe our cultural resources play an important role during these uncertain times. While we anticipate most sites will open in some capacity by early July, we will continue to use these shared principles and the facts on the ground to ensure the best experience for our visitors.”


Agecroft Hall and Gardens
The American Civil War Museum
The Black History Museum And Cultural Center of Virginia
The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design
The Children’s Museum of Richmond
Henricus Historical Park
The Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU
John Marshall House
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
The Library of Virginia
The Poe Museum
Preservation Virginia
St. John’s Church Foundation
The Science Museum of Virginia
The Valentine
The Valentine First Freedom Center
The Virginia Holocaust Museum
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
The Virginia Museum of History and Culture
The Wilton House Museum


  • Facemasks will be required of visitors, staff, and volunteers (as required by Executive Order), with exceptions for young children

  • Capacity will be reduced to provide guests space to socially distance. In some cases, pre-registration/timed tickets may be required

  • Contactless payment and use of credit/debit card for purchases will be strongly encouraged

  • Social distancing will be required, and may be encouraged with barriers, designated walk routes, and additional signage

  • Hand sanitizer and similar options will be available across institutions


  • Programming will be temporarily suspended to reduce contact within large groups

  • Alterations or adaptations to hands-on exhibits and experiences will be made to reduce interactions with high-touch surfaces


  • Cleaning protocols will be expanded, especially in restrooms and high-touch areas\

  • Each site will clearly post their institution-specific guidelines and protocols on their websites, on social media, and onsite

    About the Valentine
    The Valentine has been collecting, preserving and interpreting Richmond’s 400-year history for over a century. Located in the heart of historic downtown, the Valentine is a place for residents and tourists to discover the diverse stories that tell the broader history of this important region

Richmond’s Women Mayors

With the current widespread Coronavirus upheaval, editorials have begun to note the efficient government responses and low casualty rates in countries run by women. Is it cause or coincidence? What would our local, national and global realities look like right now if women ran things? What would Richmond be like under a woman with executive power? As usual, history is a useful place to turn to explore these questions.

Virginia has never elected a woman governor or sent a woman to the Senate. The city of Richmond, however, has had two women mayors.

Delegate Eleanor P. Sheppard (1968-1977) working at desk on her last day in the Virginia House of Delegates in the Virginia State Capitol, March 5, 1977, V.85.37.2417, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine

The first, Eleanor Parker Sheppard, held the office from 1962 to 1964. As the first woman on city council as well—elected in 1954—she transitioned into the mayoral role with confidence. As the city dealt with desegregation, Sheppard pursued a bold, progressive agenda of public works. She sought to expand healthcare and children’s services while also helping to bulldoze the way for I-95. But public works do not always work for everyone. An advocate of “urban renewal,” Sheppard supported the demolition of the Fulton neighborhood, which permanently displaced many Black Richmonders. Sheppard was popular and not long after her term as mayor expired, she moved on to a decade-long career in the House of Delegates.

Richmond Mayor Geline B. Williams with recent Haverford College graduate Kyle Danish, August 5, 1988, Lindy Keast Rodman, V.91.04.894, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine

Richmond’s second woman mayor served from 1988 to 1990. Geline B. Williams also took office during heightened racial tensions. But her priorities and approach proved to be very different from Sheppard’s. A conservative, Williams had represented the overwhelmingly white First District as a City Council member. Many believed that the recent annexation of Chesterfield (in Williams’ district) was a bald attempt to drown out the voting power of Richmond’s Black residents. Tensions increased when Williams became the first white mayor since 1977. Critics and Black council members argued that political power in a predominantly black city had been handed back to white suburbanites. City Council meetings turned ugly. Amidst all the controversy, Williams served quietly. Her mere victory turned out to be her most controversial action. Critics accused her of being an invisible mayor, while her supporters called her gentle. Her political goals tended toward traffic safety, leaf collection, lowering taxes and maintaining a tight budget. She retired from political life shortly after her term was up.

The political legacies of these two women, as complicated as they are, actually do very little to reveal what executive power wielded by a woman looks like in Richmond. That’s because both Sheppard and Williams served as mayor at a time—between 1948 and 2004—when Richmond adopted a Council-Manager government.  In that system, City Council and their appointed City Manager held executive authority and Council also appointed the mayor. That meant that the position of mayor was largely ceremonial. In fact, both women arguably held more power as council members.

It seems that for a variety of reasons, history has not given us the inspiring lesson we had hoped for. But here at the Valentine, we believe it is our role to use the past to inform the present and shape the future. And this fuller, more nuanced history of women serving as Richmond’s Mayor can perhaps help to inform and enliven the next generation of leaders across the city.

The Covenanters

In the midst of the pandemic in the absence of school, Richmond parents are struggling to both educate and entertain their children. While this problem may feel new, at one point in Richmond’s history, a vast, structureless day was common.

The first free public school opened here in 1870. But attendance was far from mandatory. And for many children who worked in factories to help support their families, cost was far from the main obstacle to education. Until the early 20th century, many Richmond children lucky enough to escape factory work spent much of their days outside and on their own. This was especially true of boys, who enjoyed more freedom than girls. With little oversight, it was not uncommon for many of these children to trespass, steal, throw rocks and terrorize animals.

Roving boys even formed gangs that warred with each other. In response, a local woman named Katherine Hawes founded a group in 1896 to harness all of this energy for the common good. After meeting with the founder of the Boy Scouts in England, she decided to bring the principles of that organization to America. The Covenanters Movement, as it came to be called, was the first of its kind in this country. Hawes organized the group through the Second Presbyterian Church here in Richmond.

Covenanter parading during J.E.B. Stuart monument unveiling, May 30, 1907, Bolling, Storrs, Grant Photograph Collection. PHC0005/V.82.32.03. The Valentine

Semi-military, semi-artistic, semi-community service oriented, the Covenanters drilled, marched and went camping. They learned wood-carving, leatherwork and took music lessons. With an orchestra and a fife and drum corps, they gave concerts and marched in parades. They also engaged in community service projects, like distributing holiday baskets to the poor. Their headquarters, at 6th and Main Streets, featured a library and bowling alley.

Undeniably successful and popular, the Covenanters movement spread far beyond Richmond. The Second Presbyterian Church established 119 companies as far south as Brazil. However, the group was obviously limited to cities and towns with a Second Presbyterian Church. So when the Boy Scouts came to America in 1916, the Covenanters were quickly overshadowed and outnumbered.

Moral Quarantine

The act of quarantine has, of course, been used throughout Richmond’s history to stop the spread of viral contagion.  But the quarantine concept has also been used here to halt what many believed to be moral contagion as well.

In the early 19th century, Magdalen Societies began to appear in cities all over America, the first being founded in Philadelphia in 1800.  These charities sought out “fallen women,” like sex workers, to rehabilitate into moral rectitude. Magdalen members believed that once these women were quarantined from the people and associations of their sinful lives, they could be reformed. This moral quarantine came in the form of housing, meals and a strict schedule, which often included prayer and training in handicrafts. In 1874, the Magdalen Association of Richmond opened such a home on Spring Street, in Oregon Hill, in the 1819 Parsons House. Their stated mission was to provide “shelter and reformation for fallen women.” Within ten years, the mission of the home had narrowed somewhat, as a refuge for unwed mothers.

Spring Street Home, Early 20th century, V.46.38.269, The Valentine

By 1881, the Spring Street Home took in around twenty women per year, seeing them through their pregnancies, childbirth and adjustment to motherhood. At a time when the stigma of single motherhood was so great that a family’s social standing could be ruined by a pregnancy, maternity homes put a curious twist in the concept of the moral quarantine. Many argue that the main goal of maternity homes in general was to hide the women from “good society”, rather than to save them from the bad. Either way, the Spring Street Home sat on extensive grounds in Oregon Hill, and even had a view of the river.

In 1932, it moved to a 100-acre parcel in the West End and was renamed Brookfield. The new facility had dorm rooms, living rooms, a recreation room, nurseries, delivery rooms, a chapel and a library. The entrance to Brookfield bore a stone carved motto: They Shall Obtain Mercy. Fees were charged to those who could pay. By this time, the home served mostly teenagers and was the oldest of its kind south of Baltimore. In 1968, the home moved again, to a smaller facility on the north side. Five years later, they integrated to serve African Americans. But societal changes, including birth control innovations, legal access to abortion and changing social attitudes about single motherhood made Brookfield increasingly irrelevant. In 2011, it closed for good.  The west end location was demolished in 1968 for development, but the original 1819 building in Oregon Hill still stands.

Mint Juleps & John Dabney

Now that Virginians can order cocktails for take out and delivery, consider supporting your favorite bartender by ordering our most historic cocktail: the mint julep. Through tense times, mint juleps have broken seemingly impossible barriers and won over Richmond’s fiercest critics.

When Charles Dickens came to visit in 1842, his published impressions scandalized Richmonders. He criticized the squalid conditions in the factories and streets, the immorality of slavery and the willful blindness of the wealthy to the misery all around them. He did, however, praise our mint juleps. Beloved by visitors and citizens, the mint julep represented the genteel southern class in the light they wished to be seen. Even a staunch abolitionist like Dickens could not deny its charm. And our most famous mint julep, made by a local bartender named John Dabney, touched the lips of visiting politicians and royalty during this city’s darkest era. In fact, his recipe became a tool of Richmond diplomacy.

John Dabney, Late-19th century, V.99.61.07, Gift of Mrs. Lillian Dabney

John Dabney was born into enslavement in Hanover County around 1824. Owned by Cora Williamson DeJarnette, Dabney was rented out to a relative named William Williamson, who owned a restaurant in Richmond.  Williamson arranged for Dabney to be trained by chefs. He soon became well-known locally for his terrapin stew and his canvasback duck, but what really impressed people were his mint juleps.  As an enslaved bartender, Dabney was allowed to keep a portion of his earnings. With those earnings and fueled by his rising fame, he bought his wife’s freedom in the late 1850s. Still enslaved himself, he kept bar at a number of fashionable restaurants during the Civil War. He had been saving to purchase his own freedom when the war ended.

As a free man, he continued to keep bar around the city. By 1868, he’d saved enough to purchase his freedom from Williamson—which he did, even though he was already free. After 41 years of bondage, Dabney found himself in a position very few freedmen did: he was so beloved by the powerful class that any Richmond bank would loan him money. With his culinary skills and sterling reputation, he opened his own successful restaurant here in the early 1870s.  His son later wrote that his father’s “reputation and business standing rendered him almost immune to segregation, ostracism or racial prejudice.”